Christoph Böninger “To design with complete freedom”

Munich designer and manager Christoph Böninger fulfilled a personal dream when he created the label Auerberg. He produces furniture and accessories created by internationally renowned designers and which defy all marketing logic. The company’s slogan: “Radically subjective.”

Book Bench, Design: Christoph Böninger Book Bench, Design: Christoph Böninger | Photo: © Thomas Koller In your graduate thesis in the early 80s you presented the design of the world’s first notebook. Are you proud of being a pioneer in the computer world?

Proud is taking it a bit too far. But I did get the chance to work for Schlagheck & Schultes in Silicon Valley after graduating. It was a huge privilege to witness first-hand this exciting period that marked the dawn of computer development in America.

As former managing director of Designaffairs, you stood for marketing-led design. With Auerberg, the design label you created in 2011, you have gone a step further, putting aside marketing strategies. Does this give you first and foremost a sense of personal freedom?

Well, all along I took the liberty of designing for other companies on the side, like Classicon.

Nevertheless, it’d be impossible to think of Auerberg without the twenty years at Designaffairs ─ Siemens, that is. In this respect, establishing Auerberg has an autobiographical element, of course. Design is always oriented towards usability. The question is: what is the goal? At the end of the day, what big corporations always pursue is increasing sales. The years 2005/2006 were outstanding for Designaffairs. In retrospect, though, I’d have to say that we did sell our souls a bit. We had created a design machine and optimized processes, rolling out mobile phones almost with the efficiency of a baker fetching rolls from the oven.

So Auerberg is set up modeled on an author-run publishing co-op?

My “book cart” from 2008 kick started this project. The producer for whom I had originally designed the cart got cold feet due to financial reasons and backed out. I then set out to find a way of working with a network of people but without the overhead expenses. I contacted friends and colleagues from the design world and they all got very excited. Everybody knew right away that this was not about making money but about being able to design with complete freedom.

Auerberg features prestigious designers such as Herbert Schultes, Tobias Grau or Alfredo Häberli. Do you also work with budding designers?

I get a lot of inquiries from them. The first thing I always ask them is: What is your story, what makes you tick? We have been very successful bringing out work by some young designers like Gerry Kellermann.

Do you only market and sell online?

Yes, on our website. Having an “A” as the first letter of our label, which is named after my hometown in Upper Bavaria, does its bit - an invaluable advantage in search engines (laughing) Well, actually, in the meantime we also work with retailers who understand our philosophy and carry our products.

Your collection offers a wide range – from Tobias Grau’s tray tables to your own Soester stool and Binchotan activated coal that filters water. What is the idea behind them?

The objects must be able to be produced in small quantities because we cannot invest in tools and equipment. They must also be made of authentic materials like glass, tin or wood. Another important criterion is size – due to logistical reasons, as we came to realize. The cardboard boxes must not exceed certain measurements– the so-called tape measures. And since we don’t want to be elitist, our projects aren’t expensive. Other than that, we have complete freedom.

How come your collection features the blowpipe “Bouffadou” –an archaic forefather of the bellows?

Some of the products we carry have been especially designed. Yet there are also some ready-mades such as the Bouffadous from France – they are neat things, so why not give them a chance, too?

Auerberg’s slogan is “radically subjective.” Can you tell us the story of your Book Bench?

When the weather is bad, the benches at the beer gardens are stacked on top of one another but their legs stick out. This is what inspired us to create this small kinematic object. Shipping it is difficult, though, so we also offer the assembly kit. With DYI now being so popular, the bench is a big hit.

Who has the final say on whether to produce a design or not?

It’s me, ultimately. But I work a lot on developing the product hand in hand with the designers. A unique thing is that there are hardly any big egos among the group members. This means that we ponder an idea back and forth, playing around with it until it works – we all work on an equal footing.

Is there a best-seller?

Several. Tobias Grau’s tables, Herbert Schulte’s carafes, my book carts or the wire baskets. The Bouffadous also sell like hotcakes. But we’ve had some huge flops, too.

Where do you see the future of Auerberg?

I’d like to be more daring, venture into more experimental projects. Right now, I am working on having the wire baskets, which from an art historical perspective originated in Italy and then found their way to Africa, glass-blown by the craftspeople in the Bavarian Forest region. This technique originally comes from Murano so this brings us full circle: an Italian design lives on in Africa, then finds its way back to Europe and in Bavaria is finally transformed into a new object by means of an age-old Italian glass-blowing technique. A really exciting project. Similar to my Soester stool… people told me then: “The only reason he made it was because he didn’t know it wouldn’t work.” I love immersing myself in a project almost like an amateur and finding out that it ultimately does work after all.